A Wife Missing, A Husband Squirming
Near the beginning of Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl,” a husband wakes up on his fifth wedding anniversary and overhears his wife humming the theme song to M*A*S*H. “Suicide is painless” goes the chorus. It’s a minor blip in the opening pages but it’s also a fundamental detail. It’s the warning, maybe the trigger, for the sadistic avalanche that eventually pours down upon the couple’s pleasant North Carthage, Missouri neighborhood. In the moment, it barely registers.
In his adaptation, director David Fincher, using a script from Flynn herself, omits this brief subtlety. The husband, Nick Dunne, played stoically by Ben Affleck, instead stands outside of his residential home as if just comprehending the song and its potential implications. It’s still dark on a July morning. Nick stays frozen, isolated, lost, alone in thoughts that suggest dread or melancholy, a terrifying range of emotions that Fincher, like his source material, holds close to his vest. In the moment, it resonates.
That’s both a positive and negative in this film, which remains devoted both to the novel’s narrative structure and its format, swapping perspectives between Nick and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), between Nick’s foggy present and Amy’s diary-written past. This is an easier transition on the page than it is on screen (fadeouts discern points of view). But using the screen is also an advantage. Fincher mixes flashbacks with the same sickly yellow lighting he has provided his previous cinematic atmospheres, lit just barely enough to see a face, dark enough to question whose it is. You never feel safe around his protagonists or their locations.
Which is why a story questioning identity, intent, past and present works so well in his hands. He has to work harder though in Gone Girl. Fincher doesn’t have his usual urban backdrop to provide mystery. His palette is the suburban countryside during the country’s recession, given haunting effect with some opening images of beleaguered homes and empty stores. It’s impacted the couple. Nick is laid off from work in New York writing for a men’s magazine. Amy loses her job writing quizzes for women’s magazines.
The flashbacks Amy scribbles into her diary show some of this hardship, which gets relocated to North Carthage when Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer. She eventually dies along with Nick and Amy’s marital spark. Nick has turned to video games and Chinese food. He’s opened a bar with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and spends most of his day sharing his misery with her. Amy’s resentment—both with her boredom and new setting– begins festering, written memories that seemingly snowball into speculation.
That’s because several hours after Nick stands outside his home, he’s rushing back to it. His wife is missing. A table is flipped, blood has been wiped from the floor, and Amy has become the titular character. Detectives Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) begin their investigation that quickly turns into public hysteria. As Amy remains hidden from sight, the community grows more aware. A friend of Amy’s (Casey Wilson) demands answers from Nick. Amy’s parents, who turned their daughter into a highly profitable best-selling children’s book character, lean on Nick to spearhead the search party.
Nick, however, stays his slack-jawed self through this ordeal, which is to say he quickly falls prey to the easily swayed public opinion of him. A press conference smile for the camera, an accidental selfie with another woman, and slowly the hunting party engulfs him in question. It’s not unjustified. Flynn teases us when Nick becomes less than a trustworthy narrator, and Fincher’s flashbacks give more depth into past altercations. Affleck allows his poker face to indict Nick’s poor PR decision-making and suffers with each local televised crime show.
Fincher devotes most of the first half to Nick’s perspective, which involves a search for clues, condensed from the novel, that Amy leaves for him each anniversary– riddles to test his love. Instead they test Nick’s culpability regarding her disappearance. “Hang ups, let downs/ bad breaks, set backs,” goes Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” a song featured in Zodiac, Fincher’s other dark and slow-burning thriller. The lyrics seem appropriately apt here for Nick, embroiled in multiple affairs both personal and artificial.
But the story snaps its fingers. There is little time to linger, which is a shame because Fincher’s movies work best under careful inspection and slowly baiting his audience. His camera, as usual, rapidly, intelligently cuts when it needs to, as if a skipping CD lurching forward to give only the essential information. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who supplied the soundtrack for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) reteam and balance the pacing, infusing the sticky scenario with piano chords that begin smoothly and end claustrophobically.
Amy is not technically lost in all of this and Pike, with her unblinking beady eyes, brings out the enigmatic, slippery persona in her narration before a tricky plot twist. Her encounters, some of them bloody, involve two hicks in a trailer park and an exceptionally creepy former fling named Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), who gives the third act an added layer or horror that’s choreographed brilliantly while exposing Amy’s deceptively masterful masks. Tyler Perry as Nick’s dutiful attorney also provides punches of humor hoping to end the media circus that has taken Missouri hostage.
That’s a hard task he finds with such a damaged couple, two characters Flynn has an easier time illuminating and then persecuting over 400 pages. “Who are you?” “What have we done to each other?” “What will we do?” Nick rhetorically interrogates the opening sequence in bed, caressing his Amy’s head, which he has also imagined being cracked open. Fincher ends with the same gentle sequence, too, as if we have never left the Dunne home. It’s maddening how he has made us care for these people. Even more how quickly we forget them.